A Mayan Discovery in Tulum, Mexico

by Steve Nielsen, Vice President of Caribbean and Atlantic Shore Operations

The ruins at Tulum in Mexico
The ruins at Tulum in Mexico

I have traveled all over the world, but I stumbled upon my most memorable travel experience during a business trip. Let me qualify that. It was a quick side trip during a business trip, almost an afterthought. Still, that afternoon has stuck with me ever since and I revisit the location whenever my schedule allows.

Thirty-seven years ago, I came upon Tulum, Mexico, the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that was all but untouched by tourists at that time. I was scouting the Caribbean for Princess Cruises, as the company planned to expand from its Los Angeles base to Fort Lauderdale. When I arrived, I met with Princess’s Mexico general agent at the time, German Osuna, to look at possibilities for shore excursions in Cozumel and along the stunning Yucatan peninsula.

At the time, the Mexican government was just beginning to lay the foundation for what is now the wildly popular resort town of Cancun. Cancun is like Miami Beach or Orlando—it was built to attract tourists. Then, it was just in its infancy, with little more than architectural models and high hopes hinting at its future.

German and I checked out Cancun and then headed down the peninsula. He wanted to show me an interesting area of architectural exploration—a monument to the Mayan past, Tulum. I knew nothing of Tulum, just that the peninsula was rich in Mayan culture, which would be of interest to our passengers.

At the time, in the mid-1970s, workers were still excavating the site, a process that had been going on since 1913. Situated between the jungle on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, Tulum escaped with little recorded history. However, it was mentioned in the writings of the Spanish conquistadors Juan Diaz and Juan de Grijalva in 1518. In 1843, Tulum’s ruins were described by the English explorers, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who mapped the site. Although they discovered a stele, a commemorative marker that dated back to AD 564, it’s believed that Tulum’s heyday ran from the 1200s until the Spanish arrived 300 years later, bringing in Old World diseases that wiped out Mayan society.

German and I parked the car and then hiked along a dirt footpath with jungle on either side of us for about half a mile toward Tulum. We were hot and sweaty, but the beauty of the landscape more than compensated. My mind was busy calculating whether or not Tulum would make a good shore excursion for our passengers.

Somewhere outside of the ancient Tulum walls (“Tulum” means “fence” or “wall” in the Mayan language of the Yucatan), German and I encountered a little boy of four or five years old. He was sitting outside his family’s very modest one room house and dressed in nothing more than shorts. By his features, he appeared to be a direct descendent of the Mayans — an heir to this stunning land.

The boy chatted brightly away in Spanish. He was offering to take us on a tour of Tulum. We looked around. No parents or guardian in sight. This young tour guide was a solo practitioner. We took him up on his offer and soon were headed over the low Tulum walls and venturing into the ruins. That first sight was awesome. Tulum emerged in front of us from the middle of the jungle. Even if you approached Tulum from the Caribbean Sea, the approach would be equally inspiring to see the ruins seated atop a bluff.

That day, no archeologists were on site, so we felt as if we were discovering the city for the first time. It was an incredible experience to climb up and down rocks, walk among the ruins and try to imagine how it appeared circa 1200.

Our young guide led us around, pointing out specific points of interest. I remember saying to German, “Life is really funny, we’ve traveled all over the world but this little boy probably won’t leave the area…his life is pretty much confined to what he is where he is.”

We finished looking at the ruins and headed back to the little boy’s home. I made some notes in my notebook for a few minutes then we took leave. That’s when the little boy started to cry! German said, “He was our tour guide, he must want a tip.” So I gave him a one peso coin. The boy looked at it, turned it around in his hand. I said, “You don’t know one peso?” Without skipping a beat, he replied, “I only know five pesos.” Chastised, I upgraded his tip and reconsidered my somewhat limited opinion of his future. That boy was going places for sure.

Since then, Tulum has emerged as an important historical site and major point of interest in Mexico. I’ve returned many times, as I was transferred from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale 16 years ago to look after Caribbean and Atlantic shore operations for Princess Cruises. The last time I was there was about two years ago.

In the intervening years, the approach into Tulum has been cleared and there are paved highways with commercial establishments on either side. The archeologists have completed their jobs and now the Mayan ruins are fully exposed. You can see where the central area was, where the homes were situated, where people cooked, had their meals and slept. There is a beautiful coliseum-type building for social activities.

I have to admit, it feels a little crowded for someone who had experienced Tulum like an explorer would with a colleague and an unlikely preschool-age guide. I could never have predicted that Cancun would become the most popular tourist destination in Mexico and Tulum would be a busy, world-renowned historical site and popular shore excursion. The two seem to have grown out of the ground together.

I think, how funny it is that the distance from brand new Cancun to an ancient Mayan city is not that far apart. I found the beginnings of a modern tourism Mecca 15 miles away from a 1,000 year old ruin. And there was a descendent of the Mayans waiting to show me something new.

I often think about that boy and wonder what happened to him. Today, he’s probably a successful tour operator in Cancun. What travelling has taught me most of all is how much alike we are, how similar we are through our basic human traits.